Well here we are on the first of December, and after the tragic loss last year of the MAGIC MODEM and Santa’s blog (take a peek in the “Miscellany” section if you weren’t about last year and want to get up to speed) I thought we would keep things nice and simple with a festive A-to-Z. I’m not entirely sure we’ll be able to keep on topic – I do rather tend to lose my way along the way – but everything that follows over the next 24 days will have some sort of Christmassy connection for me.
Today’s blog is an unusually large one (ooer, missus), because it touches on a topic very dear to my heart. Don’t let that put you off, though; many of the blogs will be considerably shorter, especially those ones dealing with the trickier letters at the end of the alphabet where associations might be a little bit obscure. The section on ‘Ziggy the Christmas Zebra’ comes to mind. Anyhow, enough preamble, given that I’ve already said today’s post is a biggun…
ALCOHOL: Obviously. Christmas and alcohol were made for each other, unless you happen to be one of those strange people who can ‘take it or leave it’ or a recovering alcoholic. If the former, good luck to you, you miserable bastard (joke); if the latter then hats off to you and very, very best wishes for a wonderful and sober Christmas and an equally wonderful and sober New Year.
But back to ‘A is for Alcohol’… Whether the wine you ruin with cinnamon and sugar and a mull on the gas ring on Christmas Eve, the flaming brandy poured over your Duff of Death on the big day itself, or the cider hot toddy with which you wassail in the twelfth night, booze, in all its wicked and wondrous forms, is as inherent a part of the Christmas tradition as stockings over the fireplace and inappropriate snogging at the office party. And quite rightly so.
Of course, there are FAR too many varieties of alcohol to discuss them all here (heaven forefend, we would be here all night and I don’t know about you but I’m not up for that without at least a couple of bottles of Cab Sauv to keep us company), so to keep it simple I’m just going to stick to a few beginning with ‘A’ that have played a role in my own family Christmases:
1) Ale. Back in the Good Old Days (this is a phrase you will be reading often over the next 24 days) there were two kinds of Christmas ale: Light and Brown. A couple of crates of each would magically appear after I had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, stacked somewhere along the back wall of our living room between dad’s piano and the pride-of-place cocktail cabinet that was largely ignored for the rest of the year but came into its own during the festive period. I remember distinctly the childhood thrill of my annual glass of light ale, which I was allowed from the age of about five onwards as a refreshing accompaniment to Christmas dinner. Given that turkey is generally as dry as a Jack Dee bon mot some sort of liquid refreshment was a necessity, but my parents could just as easily have insisted I stick to lemonade and/or a draft or two of the non-alcoholic-but-hotter-than-vindaloo ginger wine my mother brewed. Well they could have had it not been for the two hours I spent tantrumming on the living-room floor and the further hour I spent kicking the crap out of the hall door after being sent to the naughty step to ‘think about’ my behaviour. I got my light ale – with a top of lime for good measure– and they got a brief respite from my terrible behaviour. Everyone’s a winner, eh?
Over the next couple of years I moved from light to brown, and then, in one memorable year, to hard spirits, which I filched when nobody was looking and downed-in-one repeatedly before vomiting spectacularly over the heavily laden tea table. Few sausage rolls and mince pies were consumed that teatime, I can tell you, and the Birds™ trifle, with added chunky toppings to augment the hundreds and thousands, went into the bin faster than Iain Watters’ Great British Bake Off baked Alaska.
At some point in the mid-seventies the brown bottles disappeared to be replaced with shiny cans. Lager *tsk*. A traditionalist even then, I stuck to bitter during my regular bouts of underage drinking in pubs, but I was heavily outnumbered by namby-pamby lager swiggers when it came to the Christmas dinner-table, so that’s what mum would get in (regardless of any tantrums on my part) by default. Nowadays, of course, thanks to CAMRA members and other up-themselves middle-class self-appointed beer ‘connoisseurs’, designer ales (*gak*) from microbreweries (*gak-gak*) are all the rage. That’s a double-edged sword for me, because while appreciating the range and diversity of ale on offer, the up-marketing and pretention makes my stomach heave, but it’s still good to see proper beer making a comeback and that piss-weak-all-air-and-bubbles-Johnny-come-lately German cold-brewed stuff getting its come-uppance.
2) Advocaat is another alcoholic ‘A’ that features heavily in my childhood memories, in the form of snowballs served in “champagne saucers” with pictures of Bambi-like yearling deer on the sides. My mum had a special jar of Magic Maraschino cherries kept somewhere at the back of that previously mentioned cocktail cabinet, which would be opened with great ceremony at some point during the Queens Speech – perhaps in conscious rebellion against the man who insisted that she should have been drinking drafts of the snot-coloured alcoholic custard pretty much around the clock (‘eveninks and morninks, I drink Warninks’) – to adorn her first snowball of the day.
‘Magic’ wasn’t the brand, by the way – these were true magic cherries, in that the jar never seemed to empty. It may well be that mum and her snowballing partner Auntie Nancy – ever mindful of the pennies – merely used the cherries for decoration, sucking them clean and putting them back in the jar for reuse once the snowball was drained. Whether magic or recycled, I recall the same tiny jar with the same faded label residing in the cabinet throughout my childhood years; a true Christmas Miracle given that my siblings and I were so starved for treats throughout the rest of the year that we would consume anything even vaguely hinting at the promise of a sugar rush, including the contents of the sugar bowl, which had to be kept under lock and key in the kitchen “press”.
3) Asti Spumante – Well I say Asti but truth be told many varieties of sparkling liquid have adorned our Christmas table over the years, including some which never came close to including grapes in their production process, which is why I’ve avoided using the word ‘wine’ in this description. My earliest memory of a Méthode Champenoise beverage is Pomagne, which was in essence an extremely bubbly version of Bulmer’s cider. It came in a big, green, foil-necked bottle like champagne, it popped its (plastic) cork like champagne (we had the dents in the polystyrene ceiling tiles to prove it), it fizzed and bubbled like champagne, and it tasted like… weasel’s piss. Well, I say weasel’s piss, but I guess it would be equally accurate to say cider. Or, even more accurately, dry cider. Which tastes like weasel’s piss. In my opinion. And no, I haven’t, but I’ll stand by my assertion until somebody proves me wrong, which puts the ball squarely back in your court, sunshine…
As the Bambified champagne style saucers mentioned earlier suggest, “perry”, or pear cider, was another favoured Christmas tipple, in the form of Babycham. Sadly this fell out of favour and off the menu in the eighties, the final kiss of death being the ‘Hey, I’d love a Babycham’ advert featuring an unintentionally (?) camp Disco-Dude who looked like the lovechild resulting from a weird sexual couplage de plusieurs involving Tina Turner, Errol Brown, M. C. Hammer and Mr T. Oh, and with the Village People joining in for good measure. One hell of a party for sure, but not an image Babycham could either live up to or capitalise on.
In recent years designer ciders containing all manner of fruits and berries have become big business, and sales of Babycham have risen on the back of this alcopop-fuelled resurgence in interest. Basically, there are lots of children people wanting to get pissed now who don’t actually like the taste of alcohol, and flavoured ciders lend themselves perfectly to this kind of irresponsible innovative marketing.
Moving on from ciders and perries, Pomagne ushered in a new era of cheap and fizzy Christmas alcohol options. Asti was the first contender, but Cava followed hot on its tail and now Prosecco is doing to Cava what Cava did to Asti and what Asti did to Pomagne. With the advent of award-winning supermarket champers at around twelve to fifteen quid a bottle even lowly plebs like me can now get in on the act and drink the proper stuff, though “proper” is of course a subjective term which those who know better and/or those who like to think they know better would never apply in any but an ironic sense to Lidl’s finest.
Of course, not all wines fizz, and in the late seventies and early eighties non-sparkling wines, invariably German and of the ‘Black or Blue?’ (to quote Roddy Doyle) varieties, were introduced into the yuletide mix for the poor of the parish. Fortunately this flirtation with these festive outpourings from Mary’s Mammaries was a short-lived one, and soon we were exploring and enjoying grander, more sophisticated examples of the vintner’s art like Mateus Rosé and Piat d’Or. And we’ve never looked back since.
Well, that’s fifteen hundred words or so on ‘A is for alcohol’ and I guess it’s more than enough A’s for anyone. A pity – I’ll have to try to work After Eights, Almonds, and Advent Calendars in elsewhere. B next, and I promise not to jump straight in with Beer. Or Brandy. Or Bailey’s. Probably.